REVIEW: Teatro Nuovo Makes Rossini New Again
Above: A scene from Teatro Nuovo’s production of La Gazza Ladra. Photo by Steven Pisano.
July 18, 2019
By Brian Taylor
For more than two decades, fans of Broadway musicals have had City Center’s Encores! for rare classics in minimally staged yet expert performances — full orchestra and original (often painstakingly restored) orchestrations — emphasizing musical values.
Now, the opera world has Teatro Nuovo. Founded last year by Will Crutchfield, formerly Director of Opera for the Caramoor International Music Festival, Teatro Nuovo is a breath of fresh air. True to its name (Italian for “new theater”), Teatro Nuovo promises to revive neglected Bel Canto works with a rigorous, historically informed performance practice.
The orchestra plays period instruments — gut strings, wooden flutes, calf skin timpani — seated in an arrangement emulating the way it was done in early nineteenth century Italy. The biggest innovation: gone is the conductor. Instead, the concertmaster faces the stage, leading the orchestra, while the fortepianist focuses on the singers. The result invigorates the art form, shedding it of years of accumulated dust and rust. Thursday’s performance of Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra (“The Thieving Magpie”) in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater was proof.
La Gazza Ladra premiered in 1817 and was quite popular during Rossini’s lifetime, but you won’t find it in the Met’s repertoire. The overture is familiar to many ears — it was used in the film A Clockwork Orange — but the opera itself belongs to the specific genre of “opera semiseria.” The characters seem to hail from the land of comic opera, but their circumstances veer into the land of tragedy. Both the particular flavor of this semi-serious piece, and Rossini’s music in general, are a bridge between classical and romantic. One foot in the world of Mozart, and another pointing to Verdi.
The company also performed Bellini’s La Straniera, and brought the shows to Manhattan as well as Purchase College. The uniformly excellent cast wore evening gowns and tuxedos on a nearly bare stage, making it difficult to always understand the convoluted story. But what the production lacked in theatrical values, it more than made up for in superb musical values. Jakob Lehmann, Teatro Nuovo’s Associate Artistic Director and “Primo violin e capo d’orchestra,” lead an energetic, driven account of Rossini’s score. The orchestra played with the organic, living-breathing feel of chamber music, with a round, plush sound. Rachelle Jonck, “Maestro al cembalo,” held court at the fortepiano accompanying the secco recitative in concert with cellist, Hilary Metzger, who supplied busy decoration.
The singing was first class. As Ninetta, the story’s troubled ingenue, Alisa Jordheim won hearts with a brilliant, gilded timbre and lithe, rhythmic coloratura. As her love interest Giannetto, tenor Oliver Sewell especially impressed with his luscious legato and emotional generosity. The chorus was expertly prepared, and Rossini’s long, driving crescendos swept through the room with drama.
Teatro Nuovo’s aesthetic is akin to restoration work clearing the grime off an aging oil painting. The colors are newly vibrant, the artwork appears new again. Like the artisans restoring beloved canvases, and like Encores! restoring a lost Gershwin score, Teatro Nuovo is providing a valuable service. Encores! began as a concert in tuxedos, too. But with success, their productions have become more ambitious (sometimes overly so). Here’s hoping Teatro Nuovo similarly expands their influence — and, perhaps their costuming budget. They occupy an important, underserved niche in the opera world.